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Posted by: HoboSylvain | 2014-01-25 19:10:16 | Papantla de Olarte, Veracruz-Llave, Mexico
Keywords: alcohol, plant
Sometimes when you travel you run into information you had idea you'd find and discover a whole new perspective on a place. That was the case a few days ago when I was in Papantla. I was there primarily to visit the ruins of El Tajin nearby and walk a bit in the Centro of the city, which is very nice. As I walked in the centre, I saw many boutiques selling vanilla products. I also encountered a sculpture and little monument about the legend of the vanilla. That intrigued me so I made some research.

As most of you, I thought vanilla was coming only from South Pacific islands. I was thus extremely surprised to discover that not only Mexico produced vanilla... but until a few centuries ago, it was the only place on Earth it was growing! Yes, vanilla is a Mexican plant.

First, it's a plant from the orchid family... and it's apparently the only orchid (of over 35 000 species) that produce a fruit! It was used for centuries in Central Mexico to flavour drinks and meals of the royals and high courts. It was discovered ly 16th century by the Spaniards as they conquered the area. They brought it back to Europe where it was also very popular. But many attempts to cultivate it outside Mexico failed because of the tricky pollination of this hermaphrodite plant. It was only in 1841 that a young slave (at age 12!) in the island of Reunion (then named Bourbon) that the plant could be pollinated manually.

Legend of the vanilla: The plant grew from the blood of two young lovers.

After that discovery, the plants were sent to be grown in every tropical territories of the colonial powers. The Dutch implanted it in Java in 1841, the French to Madagascar (1842), Tahiti (1848) and the Comoros Islands (1873), the English in the Maurice and Seychelles islands in 1890 and the Americans in Puerto Rico in 1900.

That broke the monopoly of Mexico on this second most expensive flavour (only saffron is more expensive). Now, the biggest producers in the world are Indonesia, Madagascar and China. Mexico now comes in 4th place with only about 15% of the volume produced by Indonesia. The plant is very expensive because it has to be pollinated manually, in a very specific time window in a day, it's pollination success is relatively low (about 75%) and the fruits have to be harvested manually.

In Mexico, the vanilla is mostly produced in Northern Veracruz state, in the area of Papantla. The harvesting season begins around December 15 (date determined each year by a council). There are rules to select the fruits to be picked up, in terms of size, colour, hardness, smell, etc. For centuries, Papantla was known as the Vanilla Capital and not only for its geographic position in the vanilla production area, but also because it was common to make the vanilla fruits dry in the streets. It was said the smell was spreading tens of kilometres around... so if you were lost, you just had sniff your way towards Papantla :-)

Yes, you'll find dry vanilla fruits for sale all over Papantla area, but that's not the only vanilla product you'll encounter. For food, you'll also encounter alcohol made out of vanilla, cafe flavoured with vanilla, candies, etc. But beyond food, you'll also see jewels made with the leaves of the vanilla plant, cigars rolled from vanilla leaves on top of a large variety of clothing accessories woven from the fibre of vanilla.

So, it was a very unexpected surprise to discover the vanilla country while I didn't know anything about it. It also allowed me to know more about this plant and flavour.

Cigars and cigarillos made out of the leaves of vanilla

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left this comment on 2014-01-26 08:35:47

Great article! Next to cinnamon, vanilla is my favorite essence:)

Sylvain from HoboDiary.com
left this comment on 2014-03-06 18:48:57

I forgot to mention you that if you like cinnamon... you'll have to try the horchata drinks when you come to Mexico. I don't know if they are present in the countries you've been to.

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